Ravaged by the Vietnam War, a culturally ingrained family from Laos leaves everything behind to pursue a dangerous journey across the Mekong River leading them from Thailand to the United States in Russell’s novel.
Violence interrupts the lush Laotian landscape: Bullets spray from the rifles of Communist soldiers, while indifferent American helicopters unleash bombs from above. A family makes the harrowing, death-defying struggle to elude patrolling soldiers and cross the Mekong River into Thailand. Nou, who later goes by Laura, recalls that half her family, including her two older brothers, perished during the escape. She was a mere child at the time, but the devastating effects of the loss lingered in her mother Yer’s fluctuating states of depression. Interestingly, Russell changes perspective throughout the story, including but not limited to Nou, Yer and Pao, the father. As each character’s internal conflicts unfold, his or her unique voice sheds light on the different aspects of Hmong culture while Nou’s family survives in the hope that the war will soon be over. After three years, Pao takes the search for a better life to America: Minneapolis, Minn. Shifting from Hmong culture to American, the family finds a stark contrast in lifestyle. Here, other ethnic groups are quick to blame the Asians for the Vietnam War and the ensuing loss of American soldiers. In school, Nou becomes the perfect target for teasing, while her childhood is spent playing the “adult” as her mother drifts deeper into depression. The novel takes another twist (thankfully the plot’s expansiveness is seamless) when the family moves to Sacramento, where Russell aptly integrates the culture clash as Nou changes her name to Laura and begins to see a life outside of Hmong cultural traditions of early, arranged marriage and many children. While her father is immersed in his farming business and her mother is intent on marrying her off to Dang—a respectable Hmong man—Laura dares to tread the boundaries of the Hmong culture, hoping that she will be able to pursue a career rather than marrying at a young age. The family’s richly drawn tension culminates in a grueling court case that affects all involved. Laura must decide if she is willing to sacrifice Hmong traditions in order to live the life she desires.
A multifaceted tale of complex characters finding new lives in their new world.